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It’s not enough not to be racist

Locations: Opinion Published

Hi, my name is Dan Richardson and I have been supporting racism for most of my life. 

To be clear, it was not my intention to do this, but this statement is my way of owning my part in it. Unfortunately I can’t plead ignorance because my exceptional 10th grade history teacher taught me that passively opposing anything is in fact supporting it. And in truth there have been countless opportunities where I could have actively opposed it, but didn’t.

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It is not uncommon for an experience or an event to compel me to expand my awareness and understanding, sometimes to the point of obsession. The killings of Elijah McClain and George Floyd and the protests that have ensued in recent weeks as a result were such events for me. So I now find myself on a quest to comprehend racism is a way that I have been unwilling to do until now. 

In response to these recent events, Carbondalians have rightfully asked that our police department review our policies to ensure that such events couldn’t happen here. We are doing this, but focusing solely on policing, at least in Carbondale, seemed to be an easy scapegoat for digging into the root cause of those events.

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I have learned the hard way at times that I must be willing to challenge my assumptions because if I don’t, there are plenty of folks who will gladly do it for me — and they have in spades in recent months. 

So I have challenged myself to explore what is racism, and what does it mean to be anti-racist? It’s a question I have conveniently ignored most of my life because it was too easy to disregard the trials and tribulations of minorities as anomalies or a result of poor decisions. 

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Lesson 1 of my latest quest was learning that to define racism as the sum of racist actions is like defining climate change as the world getting warmer. It’s a wee bit more complicated than that. Lesson 2 was coming to grips with the fact that race is not biological, contrary to so much of what I learned as a child. So, while race has proven to be one of the most durable institutions known to man, it is simply a social construct that very intentionally parallels the story of wealth and power throughout history. 

In America, we know the roots to be slavery, but it has persevered through segregation, disproportionate poverty, unjust incarceration, voter suppression, and most recently — inexcusable police brutality. 

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As I dig deeper into the countless stories of racism that typically escape those of us privileged enough to ignore them, I can’t help but ask: what if my sons had to go through life with both hands tied behind their backs like any person of color? 

At what age would I warn them about the very real threats of bigotry? How would I coach them through the disadvantage of having 13 times less wealth because of centuries of discriminatory social and economic policies too numerous to list? 

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Since I don’t have the burden of coaching them through that, I do have the responsibility to impress upon them that they will inherit a society where in many, many places and situations, we have made it painfully difficult, if not a crime, to be non-white. We may have removed their shackles but we’ve constructed a world where it’s no easier for them to walk, let alone run, than it was hundreds of years ago. 

My quest for greater understanding has uncovered a new realization for me. As Angela Davis once said, it’s not enough to simply not be a racist. Like so many of our challenges, I’ve learned that racism is an incredibly complex web of systemic and often well-disguised institutionalized obstacles. I know they exist, but I am far from knowing the whole story. So I invite you to share your stories with me and help me challenge my assumptions — and maybe your own while you’re at it.

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My challenge as mayor is trying to identify where those obstacles live in Carbondale and beyond. My challenge as a father is instilling the knowledge and the will in my boys to help remove those obstacles. 

The good news is that our community, with the younger generations demonstrating phenomenal initiative recently, are also clearly up to the challenges we face. I am confident that this group will learn faster than I did and bring the real change society is demanding right now.

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